Who Is the Institution?

February 29, 2016

Who Is the Institution? At the 2015 National Education Association Representative Assembly in Orlando, Florida, delegates unanimously approved New Business Item B, which committed the union to address and take action against institutional racism. NEA defined this as “the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity, and equality based upon race.” That is, you don’t have to be a racist or have racist intentions to participate in actions that have disproportionately detrimental consequences for racial and ethnic minorities.

I didn’t write about it at the time because, well, what was there to say? NEA’s primary stated objective is to provide “great public schools for every student.” It has yet to achieve that noble but difficult goal, so taking on another seemed to be in the same vein.

Others weren’t silent. While supporting NBI B, they were flabbergasted that the very next day the delegates spent almost two hours in heated debate over NBI 11, which called on NEA to support efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from public schools and public places.

Since then, NEA has incorporated institutional racism presentations and discussions at its conferences and board meetings. A large part of its Leadership Summit last weekend in Dallas was devoted to the topic. Hundreds of tweets were posted during those sessions, and they were virtually unanimous in their praise of the summit’s focus.

Part of NBI B calls on NEA to help “eradicate policies that perpetuate institutional racism in education.” Those policies are not defined, but one can wonder how NEA goes about determining what they are.

It is no secret that in recent years the racial composition of America’s public school student body has dramatically changed. In 1995, about 35 percent of public school students were racial/ethnic minorities. It has steadily increased, and the National Center for Education Statistics estimates by 2023 it will have grown to 55 percent.

The racial composition of America’s public school teachers has not kept pace, going from 13.5 percent minority in 1993-94 to 18.1 percent in 2011-12.

Not only are minorities underrepresented in teaching, but they are inequitably distributed. A 2006 Harvard study found that “white teachers teach in schools with fewer poor and English Language Learner students” and that the “typical black teacher teaches in a school where nearly three-fifths of students are from low-income families while the average white teacher has only 35% of low-income students.”

This is detrimental to both minority students and minority teachers. The study found that “schools with high concentrations of nonwhite and poor students tend to have less experienced and qualified teachers” while “nonwhite teachers are often teaching in schools that may be more difficult to teach in.”

This comes as no surprise to those who remember California’s statewide class size reduction of the mid-1990s. The consortium commissioned to evaluate the program found minority students were least likely to be in reduced-size classes, that many lower-qualified teachers had to be hired, and these teachers were mostly to be found with high proportions of minority students. What’s more, experienced teachers in those schools took advantage of the newly created openings in suburban (and whiter) schools and changed jobs, leaving the disadvantaged schools with even more openings to fill with less qualified teacher candidates.

Fast forward to today, where a new study reveals that “in almost all major American cities, most African American and Hispanic students attend public schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income.” Among other things, this means that those schools “have a harder time attracting the best teachers.”

Finally, let’s not forget that the basis of the Vergara v. California lawsuit is that the state’s tenure, seniority and dismissal laws disproportionately impact minority and low-income students. The California Teachers Association calls that “flawed,” “meritless,” “deceptive” and “faulty.” That might be true, but it is also exactly what you would expect the defenders of the institution to say.

Aye, there’s the rub. It’s easy to oppose institutional racism as long as it doesn’t require individual sacrifice. Hire more minority teachers? I’m in favor – until they get the job I applied for. Highly qualified and performing staff in low-income schools? Great – just as long as they aren’t placed higher on the district salary scale or interfere with my transfer or bumping rights. Better teachers in high-minority schools? Hear, hear! – but if they are lower on the seniority list than a so-so teacher, they have to be laid off first.

The unions’ difficulty when it comes to institutional racism isn’t the racism part. They usually march hand-in-hand with all the major civil rights groups. Their Achilles heel is the institutional part. It isn’t about white privilege, but insider privilege. Try to disrupt it, and see who stands in the schoolhouse door.

Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics February 23-29:

National Labor Relations Board Found Guilty of Unfair Labor Practice. Major victory for coat hooks and toner storage.

Colorado Union Now Bragging About Two-Year Recall Plan It Denied Having. Digging up the grassroots.

NEA to Spend $5 Million on ESSA Implementation. Local control.

Indiana State Teachers Association’s Finances. An NEA dependency.

Iowa State Education Association’s Finances. Falling membership. Rising staff costs.

Quote of the Week. “Nobody wants a bad teacher in front of a student, least of all any other teacher, because we end up picking up the slack. This case is not about that.” – Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, commenting on the Vergara case. (February 25 Los Angeles Times)